Crying out loud; bad behavior begs for help

I consider myself successful because I avoided the pitfalls my parents dug all around me. I have never been arrested, I am not addicted to any drugs, and I don’t have children with men I can’t stand. I can take a lot of the credit for this, but I can’t take all the credit. Luck was definitely involved. When I was young and hurting in a house of drugs and violence, I acted out. Maybe it was for attention, maybe it was a cry for help, and maybe I couldn’t help but do the things my parents taught me to do.

When I was eleven or twelve, I was a thief. For some reason, the boundary between mine and not mine was blurry and unconvincing. I took things off the shelf and put them in my pocket. Sometimes it was just one little thing, like a packet of gum. Sometimes it was a lot of little things, and I packed me pockets full of jewelry or trinkets.

Twice I was caught.

The second time I was at the mall with some friends. Another customer tracked me down and I was so terrified I went with him. It turns out, he had no authority and I could have kept going. I handed over all the merchandise. The assistant manager at the store took down my name and number, said she would call my dad, and the store would decide if they were going to press charges. I saw my life crumbling before me.

When I got home, I was so terrified I told my parents right away. There was some yelling and screaming. I was sent to my room while they thought about my punishment. A little while later, two of my parents’ friends came over drunk, their kids in tow. I remember it being chaotic. I remember screaming through the front door and trying to get the kids down to my bedroom. In the maelstrom, my parents forgot all about my transgressions, and the store never called.

Was this a lesson learned? I guess. I’ve been on the straight and narrow ever since. But I have to recognize how lucky I was. That store didn’t press charges, and I never got a record. I think we as a society often look at children, especially teenagers, with records and we scoff at them, turn our hearts, hunch our shoulders, blame them for their criminality, hold them accountable like they’re adults. But how many of them were crying out for help the way I was? How many of them only got detention centers and probation when they needed someone to intervene in their lives, to get their parents help, to clean up their whole family? How many of them were only acting out the terrible life lessons their terrible parents bestowed upon them? How many of them fell into the pits and traps left for them by the cycles of abuse, violence and drug addiction? Once they got that record, their lives change drastically. Doors close. I was never labeled as a criminal and was able to walk away from my mistake. If one person in that store had made a different decision, who knows how far I would have made it, if I could have avoided the other traps set for me? Would I have still avoided drugs like the plague? Would I still have protected myself from pregnancy?

I have to wonder. Did I get off easy because I am white?

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How my drug addicted parents taught me compassion for drug addicts

We can never afford to be reckless, and yet that is exactly what we are with our drug war policies. The drug war turns drug addicts into criminals and throws them into prison with thieves, rapists, gang-bangers and murderers. Despite our iron fist tactics, we spend more money on the drug war every year, put more people in prison every year, and have seen the amount of drugs and drug abuse only go up. What is going on?

People turn to drugs for many, many reasons

It is so tempting to label drug addicts criminal because locking them up is less messy than examining what drove a person to drugs in the first place. Children who grow up in households with drugs are very likely to become addicts themselves, maybe on their own or maybe because of their parents directly. While I responded to my parents’ drug problems with anger and hatred toward all drug users, my sisters, who had been abused more than I had, starting using drugs. I can only imagine why. Maybe it made them feel better for a little while when everything else was so terrible. Maybe they bought into the garbage that they were worthless and started doing drugs to hurt themselves.

A lot of people who try drugs walk away soon after. I believe the people who become addicted have fewer reasons to walk away. Maybe they have no where to go. Maybe they want to die. Most drug addicts have a story that would break your heart, not make you demand their imprisonment.

Only rehab will work

I never took up smoking. I tried to once, but I kept forgetting to have a smoke. I know lots of smokers on the other hand. Most of them are trying to quit. Most of them have quit before, maybe for a few years, or a few months, or a few days. They quit and could only be strong for so long before they went back for another cigarette. Not long after that, they are ready to quit again. I know people who have tried to quit dozens of times. Good for them. I hope they can do it.

Now imagine if we treated smokers like we treated drug addicts. Oh, you couldn’t stay strong. Go to jail. You had a bad day and took a hit. Go to jail.

This wouldn’t help a person quit smoking. It certainly won’t help a person stop doing drugs. But this is why we have to stop thinking of addicts as criminals. So many people just want to see them punished, and don’t really care if they get off drugs or not.

There is nothing inherently criminal about using drugs

Alcohol and cigarettes are both extremely unhealthy and addictive, yet somehow the world survives when adults have legal access to them. The key to dealing with these vices is to teach individuals to be responsible with them. We teach kids not to pick up smoking and emphasize the need for designated drivers. Other drugs, especially marihuana, need the same treatment. Just because a person smokes a joint doesn’t make that person dangerous or criminal, just like having a drink after work doesn’t. Let’s remember the time when just having a drink was criminal. The prohibition created the crime where there hadn’t been one before.

I know how hard this is. My parents are criminals and drug addicts. They are criminals because they steal, because they are abusive and violent, not because they smoke crack or drink alcohol. They have to be punished for attacking each other, or for stealing. But the addiction has to be treated, it has to be dealt with. It won’t just go away.

Did my parents become criminals because they were addicts, or did something drive them to crime and to drugs? I can’t know for sure, but I remember a time when things were better, when my parents were healthier and the drugs hadn’t overwhelmed everything. I believe if someone had tried to help them cope with their drug problems, things could have gone differently. Instead, my dad went away for months at a time and my mom totally fell apart. He came back still a drug addict, and everything repeated.

This is what the drug war gets us. I want a refund.